Has torture always been controversial?

The wheel really ruined his day...
The wheel really ruined his day...

Waterboarding was big news a few years ago when word got out that the CIA had employed the technique on a handful of detainees. It took a minute for many in the public to catch on to what exactly the waterboarding process entailed, but once they were in the know, there was no stopping the endless discussions over whether it was an acceptable practice.

What's more interesting is that while the existence of something like waterboarding can easily slip under the radar of people busy with the minutiae of day-to-day life, those who prowl the interrogation rooms of prisons and POW camps are actually continuing a long legacy of delivering torment. Documentation proves that waterboarding has been around since at least the 1400s, and it's likely this type of torture was practiced long before that.

However, before we get ahead of ourselves let's take a closer look at what is considered torture. Interpretations have varied over the course of history, but the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment will work as a decent jumping-off point. In essence, the convention qualifies torture as any intentional act that inflicts severe pain or suffering -- be it physical or mental -- on a person for such motives as trying to elicit information or obtain a confession or for purposes of punishment, intimidation or coercion. The torture can be aimed at attaining these objectives from the person being tortured or from a third party. The final caveat is that to qualify, the act should be either inflicted by, instigated by or allowed to occur by someone in an official capacity.

Torture, in an endless assortment of variations, has likely gone hand-in-hand with human existence since our inception as a species. Many motives exist for torture, and these motives are nothing new. Vengeance is one -- offenders must suffer before they die. Torture also conveys power over one's enemies, and the threat of potential torture can suppress acts of disobedience among a population. Torture can also procure information, encourage confessions or simply punish misbehavers. Although not always explicitly called torture by name, torture can be found throughout the pages of history.

On the next page we'll dig deeper into the dark history of torture and compare how modern reactions to the practice stack up against past opinions.